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Review: New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation, ed. George Szirtes

The length of the road traveled, from the fall of the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe to the present day, was brought home to me recently by the result of a tennis tournament. Petra Kvitova, the Czech winner of the woman's singles at Wimbledon, was born in March 1990 - so, whilst she was conceived under Communism, by the time of her birth Havel was already in the Hrad. In the time since the Velvet Revolution, a tennis champion has grown to full maturity, along with a whole generation spanning the nations that were formerly members of the Warsaw Pact.

This change - unexpected even in the late Eighties - has of course affected the lives of almost every European to some extent. In Plymouth, the largely monocultural city of my childhood, there are now four Polish shops - supported by longer-established Plymothians as well as the several thousand Poles who live and work here - and the city's
largest taxi firm is staffed largely by Romanians, Czechs and Slovaks. Since 1996, I've been visiting Budapest up to three times annually, where my partner has earned a living for most of that time as a teacher of English - this would have been inconceivable to us when we originally met in the mid-Eighties, in Leamington Spa, under the pervasive threat of mutually assured destruction. In short, it's been one of the key developments during my lifetime - not least on a personal level - and, as such, it's one that I tend to celebrate without reserve. And who, after all, would desire a return to the previous order of things?

In fact, it's not that simple and my personal gratitude - for this unexpected expansion of my horizons into parts of Europe that I love, although I'm afraid to say that my Hungarian remains rudimentary after all this time - is tempered by an awareness that not everyone in these countries has benefited. The old on dwindling pensions for example, or the Roma thrown out of their state-assured jobs into poverty, have less to be cheerful about. And it's also not that simple because Hungary has entered a new and perhaps more parlous phase - no longer is it a post-communist country but an ex-communist country, no longer in a state of euphoric consolidation or, for that matter, at Fukuyama's end of history.

I've found it unexpectedly hard to write this review and, indeed, I've come close to giving up more than once. It's a lesson, perhaps, that it can be as difficult to review a book, when one is too close to the context, as when the opposite applies. And whilst this work - as is inevitable, given the delays involved in collection, dissemination and translation - was almost certainly written in the post-communist phase, this anthology has emerged into a somewhat different political context. So, whilst the anthology does indeed present Hungarian poetry from the post-1989 generation - contextualised by way of a perceptive and informed introduction by George Szirtes, and translated by an interesting mixture of well-known younger poets and older figures long-associated with the translation of Hungarian poetry - it now exists in relation to a Hungary in which the mood appears to have changed. This paradox accounts for most of the difficulties I have encountered and, to explain this, I will need to present some political background before I discuss the authors and the work. Hopefully, at least those readers who prefer to see literature in some kind of geographical and historical context will bear with me. Other readers can skip the next few hundred words if they wish.

Whereas the post-communist phase might be said to have culminated on 1st May 2004, when Hungary joined the EU, the ex-communist phase could be said to have begun in 2006. It was precipitated by the re-election of Perenc Gyurcsany's Social Democratic (MSzP) government in April of that year and the subsequent admission by Gyurcsany, on a tape released a few months later that the seriousness of the economic situation had been underplayed at the election. His admission that 'we lied morning, noon and night', whilst allegedly intended to apply to the political class as a whole, was taken to refer to the MSzP alone and led to riots on the streets of Budapest - and as the MSzP administration limped through the rest of its four-year term the mood remained altered and tense, not least when the economic situation led to a bailout by the IMF and the replacement of Gyurcsany by a technocrat, Gordon Bajnai, for the final year or so of its term.

What changed, in short, was the level of national confidence and this has led to a resurgence of what might be called 'defensive nationalism'. This takes two forms politically. On the one hand, there is Viktor Orban's Fidesz (essentially a Christian Democratic party, but with more pronounced nationalist and even, on occasions, authoritarian tendencies than the European norm) and, on the other hand, there is Jobbik - a party of the hard right, and arguably the far right, with an anti-Roma and 'anti-cosmopolitan' (i.e. tacitly anti-Semitic) agenda. These parties triumphed at the 2010 general election - Fidesz secured a two-thirds parliamentary 'super-majority' and Jobbik, with around a sixth of the vote, not only came close to becoming the official opposition but also pulled ahead of the MSzP in much of the impoverished east of the country.

Since that election, some of the news coming out of Hungary has been unsettling. Fidesz's attempted adjustments to some media freedoms, and its rewriting of the constitution (with the alleged aim of making it more difficult for future, non-Pidesz governments to reverse its reforms), have raised concerns although the big story has involved the embattled Roma community and the role of Jobbik, and more shadowy far right presences, in its embattlement. The existence of Magyar minorities in Slovakia and Romania, and the commitment of Fidesz to these fellow-members of the (ethnically rather than geographically-defined) 'Hungarian nation', has also caused tensions and reflects the same nationalist agenda - the Treaty of Trianon (1920), which brought about this state of affairs, is still a live topic in Hungary and, perhaps even more than before, the shape of pre-World War One Hungary is not at all uncommon on book
covers, t-shirts and bumper stickers (as if, even at this point, the former frontiers could somehow be restored). Moreover, Fidesz is currently losing support and there's a risk - particularly in the east where tensions between the Magyar and Roma communities are at their most pronounced - that this will further increase support for the far right rather than for the (still traumatised) MSzP or a recently-formed liberal/green party, LMP.

It's not a hopeless situation by any means, but things could easily get worse before (if) they improve. For now, Hungary hasn't become an unpleasant place to visit by any means, at least if one happens to be a white Anglo-Saxon visitor with a smattering of the language - on my recent visits, I've continued to encounter nothing but civility at a personal level. However, there are aspects that I almost need to overlook, at least whilst I'm there, to avoid a tarnishing of my experience.

The problem I've faced, as a frequent visitor to Hungary who cares deeply about the place and its people, lies in seeing this anthology in terms of the post-1989 environment in which most of it - including those pieces with an overt social and political slant - has almost certainly been written. This involves a degree of time-travel on my part, and an exposure to unease as well as I contrast the 'Hungary I was looking forward to' with the somewhat edgier version that has emerged. Of course, the 'two Hungary's' are inexorably linked and this compounds the problem. What I will say at the outset, however, is that these writers - without fail - are in no way signed up to a defensive nationalist agenda. In that sense, this anthology not only summarises the output of an earlier phase but stands as an exemplar of the outward-looking, tolerant and progressive Hungary that will, I hope, still come about in the longer run and take its place, not in some imagined realm of ethnicity but at the very heart of Europe in all respects.

In this regard, the two contributors who are perhaps 'closest to the action' with regard to contemporary social tensions are Andras Gerevich - an openly and exultantly gay writer - and Tamas Jonas, a Roma. The emphatic rhythms of Jonas' writing might not come across as effectively in English as in Hungarian and the picture he paints, of the embattled Roma community, is powerful at times but almost too overpowering in its bleakness, at others, with its unqualified narrative of prison, disfigurement and premature death. I feel bad, almost cruel, for not responding more positively to his writing and I'd happily read more because at its best there's a raw energy reminiscent of Villon, the great early C20 Hungarian poet Attilajozsef and even Nick Cave. However, Gerevich is one of the three or four standout figures, for me, in this volume and I will consider him in greater depth.

It's a truism that nationalists the world over tend to be obsessed with producing more and more babies - after all, how could it be otherwise? - and homophobia, or a privileging of the nuclear family at the very least, is a predictable consequence. In Hungary, the Fidesz government appears to be particularly concerned with the falling birth rate, at least amongst 'ethnic' Magyars, and is keen on 'family-friendly' policies as a result - in the families featured on the government posters, there always appeal - to be at least three children (although this, admittedly, is from a limited sample). And, at the more extreme end of things, there is a level of homophobia, which Gerevich, at a personal level, must face head-on. My partner witnessed this a couple of years ago, when she happened upon the Budapest Gay Pride march - two hundred or so embattled gay men, lesbians and their supporters, several hundred jeering skinheads and a small army of police attempting to protect the marchers - and, in Let The Hand Of Fate Strike You, Gerevich deals with the matter head-on:

Throw the faggots in the Danube, throw the Jews in with them too!
The communist police once beat our forebears,
and now they call us communists,
revile us, throw sand and eggs,
even hack at our mother tongue,
in which God himself only curses.

Gerevich, who apparently divides his time between Budapest and the English-speaking world, is much more than a poet of political protest alone - his work, on the whole, is characterised by a direct sensuality that you don't have to be gay to enjoy This defiant celebration of gayness is a perfect riposte to the family fascists, as in Marmaris -

In the swearing sands
a sweating anchor:
your swollen nipples.

The sea rubbing up
against the blinding sky:
the surge of your muscles.

On the other hand, to write of family matters doesn't necessarily make one into a purveyor of so-called 'family values'. One of the other highlights of this anthology is the poetry of Anna T. Szabo, a native of Erdely (the Hungarian name for Transylvania)- she writes a spirited, strongly-rhythmic poetry that suggests a rebirth of Attilajozsef in the persona of a Generation X Penelope Shuttle (Szabo was born in 1972). Perhaps
the most memorable part of a strong set is The Labour Ward, a sequence which vividly depicts the experience of childbirth from, one assumes, personal experience -

I struggle, panting. I breathe
with my whole body, an air spout.
Oxygen flooding in,
black nothingness flooding out.

Szabo's poetry is as sensual as that of Gerevich, and it is subversive in a different way - when it homes in on 'domestic' experience, it goes beyond the containment of a right-wing political mindset by reinvesting that experience with strangeness and desire. Her work is potent and wild, the equivalent of the mad folk dances of her native 'land beyond the forests'.

The poetry of Krisztina Toth - another highlight - is equally energetic and sensual, and her persona is resolutely undomesticated. Her work is predominantly personal, perhaps even 'romantic' in its tone (although it is a romanticism disabused of sentiment) - however, it would be wrong to see her work as divorced from social context. Explicitly, the sequence 'East-Europe Triptych' describes the collective experience of the 'people of Eastern Europe (and it's notable that her tide firmly locates the Hungarian experience as an 'Eastern' rather than a 'Central' European one - for that, she implies, is how it is still seen in the West):

The loudspeaker calls out our names
and we jump up. Our names are
misspelled and mispronounced,
but we smile graciously.
We take the soap from the hotel,
and arrive too early at the station.
With heavy suitcases, in baggy trousers,
everywhere one of our compatriots loitering.
The trains go with us in the wrong directions,
and if we pay, the small change rolls everywhere.

Of course, it describes through exaggeration. However, this helps to capture a kind of experience that, for example, the Romanian taxi drivers of Plymouth - mathematics teachers, engineers or lorry drivers who, only a decade ago, would in no way have expected to be plying this particular trade beside the mercurial Atlantic - might recognise. The loudspeaker, in this case, would equate to the Prague office of the Plymouth taxi firm with maps of the city on the wall and trainees learning the names of its streets and districts. Toth's poetry, like Szabo's, is vital and luxuriant - perhaps above all in 'Dog', a propulsive account of an encounter with a wounded roadside animal and the way in which it exposes tensions within a relationship.

Virag Erdos has an equally assertive voice - she specialises in post-punk narratives and ironic strategies of self-promotion, and in her work we see something of the labyrinthine urban geography of Budapest (although why the tough, albeit increasingly gentrified, inner city' district of Jozsefvaros has been translated as the German 'Josephstadt' I don't know). As Szirtes implies, she is a refreshingly maverick presence in this volume and, it seems, in contemporary Hungarian literature.

The fourth writer I want to discuss in a little more depth - Janos Terey - also refers to Budapest and its districts in two pieces, the second of which, an excerpt from a verse-play Table Music, deals with the relationship between Buda and Pest. United into a single municipality in 1873, in some ways they are still separate cities with atmospheres of their own, almost as if Edinburgh (Buda) faced Glasgow (Pest) across a relatively narrow river. In this piece, one of the characters says:

Pest, the big smoke, is full of labouring proles,
Juicy with gossip about us on the hill.
Down there the streets are cordoned off. Cops know
They need not cordon streets off up in Buda.

Terey - and I can back this up from my encounters with the window and 'interior displays of a number of Budapest bookshops - is a key figure in contemporary Hungarian literature (remarkably so, for one born as late as 1970) and what comes across in his work is a high degree of confidence, self-assurance and knowingness. Szirtes equates this with the 'highly-intelligent, historically-conscious' street-talk of the Budapest intellectual milieu but that tone of voice is there in the UK too, in the work of some of the younger figures lionised over the past two decades - and Terey is equally prone to the imperious summing-up, as in another Budapest-centred piece The Encyclopaedia of Motherland:

Motherland is the state of waiters and waitresses.
Landlords at the tiller over-charging,
demanding astronomical prices.

I can't quite say that I warmed to him in the way that I warmed to Gerevich, Szabo and Toth - and here, I note that Szirtes expresses uncertainty in his introduction as to how his 'tone' will come across in English - but his work is ambitious and formally varied (as the parallel texts confirm) and, as with Jonas (a very different writer), I'd be happy to read more.

As this review approaches the three-thousand word mark, I'm conscious that six writers have not been mentioned as yet - namely Isrvan Kemeny, Szilard Borbely, Andras Imreh, Monika Mesterhazi, G. Istvan Laszlo, and Orsolya Karafiath. This is the problem with reviewing an anthology of this kind - one is faced with a choice between pat descriptions of all contributors or singling some of them out at the expense of others. It'd be just my luck to meet one of these writers in a dark alley one night in Jozsefvros, and I apologise to them all because each one of them contributes fine work to this anthology and deserves to be read. At the risk of gross simplification, it could be said that Kemeny and Borbely deal with social, political and historical subject-matter in a broadly-similar (but in no way identical) way to Terey and are, essentially, free-rangingly post modernist in their approach; Imreh, Mesterhazi and Laszlo are more miniaturist in tendency, focusing on 'everyday' epiphanies to convey wider insights about the relationships between humans and between humans and the wider world; and Karafiath shares the self-publicising tendencies of Virag Erdos, albeit in a lighter, more cabaret-oriented style that veers from superficial anecdote (her 'Two Flagstones', a too-determinedly-coquettish account of a foray to Prague, is perhaps the least satisfying piece in the volume) to something more profound and even lapidary. My apologies are due, regardless, to all of them for my lack of coverage.

Before concluding, there's just one more thing (in homage to Peter Falk). Of the writers included in this anthology whose place of residence is mentioned, there's not one who resides outside Budapest. Given that eight out of ten Hungarian citizens do so, and that there are several smaller, but seemingly-lively, cities throughout the country (such as Pecs, a recent European City of Culture and Szeged, a thriving university city twinned with Cambridge), is this an indication of metropolitan bias or is it the case, unlike in the UK, that anyone with any literary ambition at all has to move to the capital? In this regard, I also note that this may well have resulted in an anthology in which the psycho-geographical dimension - excepting Erdos and Terey to some extent - is largely absent, because a terrain is (perhaps) shared and taken for granted. If I have any disappointments with regard to this volume, it's this although I'm also fully prepared to admit that this reflects my own bias, and the fact that I've been motivated to write about Hungary beyond the city limits of Budapest itself. On the other hand, I've given up my attempt to write the piece that conflates Holloko - a perfectly preserved village in the north of the country - with Crow Crag, the venue of Withnail and Mat-wood's mistaken holiday. The names, after all, are all but identical so it was worth a try.

George Szirtes concludes his introduction by noting that 'the illusion (i.e. Communism and the dissidence it provoked) is gone, but history has not vanished with it. The new position leaves less room for heroics and for myth, but they have not disappeared either. They are simply moving at greater depth, with smaller, often sharper, teeth'. Applicable as that statement might well be to the post-communist phase, it remains to be seen - at least in translated literature - whether the resurgence of defensive nationalism in Hungary will lead to a different kind of dissidence (i.e. one explicitly focused on tolerance of diversity and an internationalist approach). For a country in which the far Right has such a strong political presence is unlikely to become at ease with itself very soon, given that many of its citizens are currently being made to feel like unwelcome intruders - and my partner's experience at the Budapest Gay Pride march indicates the challenges that Andras Gerevich, as a gay man, faces in the same way that the recent evacuation of a Roma settlement on the edge of the northern community of Gyongyospata, in the face of 'training manoeuvres' by far Right vigilantes, encapsulates the challenges facing Roma intellectuals such as Tamas Jonas.

As the credit-fuelled boom of the Noughties gives way to unserviceable debt and falling living standards, the seductive power of simplistic ideas of 'national renewal' may well increase across Europe - and, by adopting an anti-globalisation stance, the parties that promote such ideas may expand their appeal to the otherwise-literate young. This means that Hungary might not be behind the game, in fact, but one regrettable step ahead. In this context, the transmission of diverse, tolerant Hungarian voices to a British audience, by way of this anthology, already takes on an additional resonance irrespective of more recent literary developments - and praise is due to Arc for making this possible, as they have done for other 'neighbour' literatures and despite the recent lack of appreciation for their efforts by Arts Council England (who, as of the time of writing, have disgracefully withdrawn their grant with effect from 31st March 2012). The 'Poetry Olympics' - so generously funded in contrast - is as so much hubbub compared to this essentially quiet, yet tremendously important long-term work.